Radiation Exposure and Health

It is easy to understand why ionizing radiation has such a bad reputation. Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Chernoble have painted an indelible fear of radiation in the minds of all of us - physicians and lay persons alike.

To even consider the possibility of health benefit from radiation is tantamount to swimming upstream against a very powerful current of opposition. Kaufmann has done a remarkable job of reviewing relevant data and presenting a very compelling case for the amazing hormesis effect of ionizing radiation.

In support of NASA's efforts to return man to the moon and on to Mars I have had the opportunity recently to participate in planning for the immense radiation challenge this will impose. Apollo took man beyond Earth's protective electromagnetic shield for short periods of time and now we know what to expect from the cosmic "heavies" to come in the future - those ions of common elements up to iron, stripped of their electrons and zipping through our spacecraft at near light speed.

Our focus on radiation as an enemy has been so narrow we have forgotten or have never been taught the reality that radiation is not all bad. The evidence for adverse health effects following large, acute doses of radiation is clear, and no one challenges it. But the compelling evidence of beneficial health effects following small doses is being ignored by the authorities, even though a biological explanation, based on measured stimulation of the body's natural defenses, has been provided. I now find myself wondering why I have never heard of radiation hormesis?

Yes I have been taught that the reason we can rationally discuss this as rational human beings is the result of eons of genetic mutations due primarily to the ionizing effects of cosmic radiation. Our protective electromagnetic shield allows just enough of this radiation to "get through."

Most would consider this beneficial. And the fact that we live in a sea of radiation cannot be denied. A background of 0.2 to 0.6 rads per year is natural and it is thought provoking that fully one-tenth of this amount comes from the radiation from our internal stores of the potassium 40 isotope. Furthermore if you live at altitude of 5-10 thousand feet, your background dose becomes three times that of your sea level colleagues.

My brainwashing in the past forty years has been that, except for the undeniably beneficial effects of cosmic radiation on our mutation rates, all radiation is bad. As a young man I should have taken a much harder look at this zero tolerance attitude. I admire those among us who, like Doctor Kauffman, have taken a harder look at this and proved, at least to my satisfaction, that low level amounts of radiation are not only tolerable but beneficial.

They have critically examined those levels of radiation formerly thought to be harmful. Time and time again this effect has been proven to result in decreased malignancies of all kinds, improved general health, fewer congenital malformations and better recovery from gas gangrene and mastitis. People are now paying money to enter caves with radon-laced atmospheres for the purpose of helping their cancers and arthritis. Why - is it because it works? The positive effect of low levels of ionizing radiation on our immune systems is real.

Duane Graveline MD MPH
Former USAF Flight Surgeon
Former NASA Astronaut
Retired Family Doctor

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